On writing obituaries: A death in the family

Hold That Ghost, a 1941 movie starring Abbott and Costello, was on TCM the other night.

I watched because my Uncle Ted is in it, singing and dancing, playing himself.

He and my Aunt Adah were very nice to me when I was a kid. They also taught me an important lesson in journalism.

I’ll get to that. But first, some background.

Ted Lewis was a famous jazzman during the Jazz Age. A clarinet player and bandleader, he gave breaks to such youngsters as Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey.

But Uncle Ted was most of all a showman, crooning and hoofing to his signature numbers: “When My Baby Smiles at Me” and “Me and My Shadow.”

I remember seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Show, always wearing his battered top hat, always selling his trademark line: “Is everybody happy.”

He showed me his hat and clarinet during one of many family visits to his home in The Majestic, on Central Park West at 72nd Street.

(I wasn’t there when his neighbor, the gangster Frank Costello, was shot in the lobby.)

Although my aunt and uncle never had children, their vast apartment was a fun place to explore.

There were paintings of clowns – Uncle Ted’s most cherished art works – dishes of candy, and a real Vegas slot machine that spit out silver dollars, which we kids were welcome to take home.

Occasionally, Aunt Adah – she was the Becker, my grandfather’s sister – would invite relatives to parties.

I recall sitting on Uncle Ted’s knee while he entertained his show biz cronies: always Sophie Tucker; sometimes George Burns, Jack Benny, or Eddie Cantor.

My pals back in Queens were not impressed. It wasn’t as if I was hanging out with Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle.

When I was grown, I’d write Aunt Adah and Uncle Ted of my travels and nascent career as a newsman.

Which brings me to my misstep as a reporter.

I was working for United Press International in New York in 1970, when Uncle Ted celebrated his 80th birthday.

I arranged to interview him, thinking I’d do one of those where-are-they-now features.

It was odd to sit at his desk, in the same room with the slot machine, now in charge with my tape recorder and notepad.

The interview went well, I thought. He seemed old, and tired, and very bitter. He talked about how show business no longer had a place for him.

I wrote the story as he told it.

NEW YORK (UPI) – Ted Lewis, who made “everybody happy” with his top hat and shadow during a career spanning six decades, spends much of his time reminiscing now that he’s turned 80. But he’d much rather be out there on stage.

Interviewed in his memorabilia-filled New York apartment, Lewis said that he would like to perform but the offers have stopped coming.

“They think Ted Lewis is too corny. They probably think the parade has passed me by,” he added. “If they threw me a couple of bones I’d grab them in a minute.”

It went on to explain how he had tried a comeback in 1966, producing and starring in a revue with his old friend, Sophie Tucker. But the dream died with Miss Tucker before the show opened in New York.

It was a sad story about a sad man, and got a lot of play in papers across the U.S. Unfortunately, my Uncle Ted read it.

“He’s very mad at you,” Aunt Adah called to say.

“Why?”

“Because it makes him sound pathetic.”

“I thought it might get him a job,” I said.

“Well, it didn’t,” she said. “You should know better.”

The lesson: Never write about a close friend, a relative, or anyone who has your home number and might include you in his will.

It was not long after the story appeared that I got a call from the UPI desk early one morning.

“Did you hear about your Uncle Ted?” a colleague asked.

“No.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but he died this morning.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’ve been asked to ask you if you want to come in and write the obit,” she said.

I reprised some of the quotes from the feature. At least Uncle Ted didn’t get to read it. Few people did.

UPI logged all the wire service stories published in major U.S. newspapers.

Special attention was paid to how UPI fared against the Associated Press.

The logs would be posted. Winners would be praised. Losers would feel like losers.

AP kicked my ass on my Uncle Ted’s obit.

When Aunt Adah died about a decade later, the family divvied up some of the contents of the apartment.

My wife Linda and I wound up with a set of Rosenthal crystal wine glasses, two antique dressers and a box of old photos.

The glasses all broke, the dressers are in our bedroom, and the pictures are stored away, including one of Uncle Ted made up as a clown.

I didn’t snap the photo. But I did write the story that made him feel that way.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

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